Special Teams Made Big Difference in ASU’s Loss, Other FCS/FBS Games

Appalachian State PK Drew Stewart

By David Coulson

Executive Editor

College Sports Journal


BOONE, N.C. — The fog on a rainy Tuesday afternoon in the lush green Appalachian Mountains encroached upon Kidd Brewer Stadium like a fierce pass rush as veteran coach Jerry Moore directed his Appalachian State football team through special teams drills.


The day was in direct contrast to Saturday afternoon in Greenville, N.C., where the Mountaineers had battled East Carolina in near-100-degree temperatures and humidity that soared over 90%.


Not only were players from both, well-conditioned teams dropping on the field, at least 30 people in the crowd of over 49,000 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium were treated for heat-related illnesses and many other departed the sun-scorched arena before succumbing to the brutal heat.


It was even hot in the press box, where reporters jokingly asked ECU sports information director Tom McClellan if IV drips would be available to the media at halftime.


Despite the weather, Appalachian State was poised to pull off another significant upset five years to the day from the Mountaineers' stunning, 34-32 victory over Michigan, trailing 14-13 late in the third period on the second of two Drew Stewart field goals.


A few seconds later, ASU had committed a walkabout, allowing a 90-yard kickoff return from ECU's Lance Ray that cascaded the Pirates to a 35-13 win.


Asked about the heavy emphasis on special teams at Tuesday's practice, Moore had simple, succinct reply.


"Mistakes like that get you beat," said Moore. "You make two or three mistakes in a game like that and it can cost you a ballgame."


As the Mountaineers continue preparations for a special Football Championship Subdivision showdown Saturday at 6 p.m. at home against Montana, Moore doesn't want fatal flaws in special teams to cost his squad another victory.


Moore remembers the last time we had a heavyweight inter-conference battle like the Appalachian State-Montana contest.


It was 2008 and the two teams that had captured the four previous national championships, Appalachian State and James Madison, faced off in Harrisonburg, VA. 


The Mountaineers led comfortably, 21-0, as the second half began when they committed  a lethal error — booting the second-half kickoff in the direction of JMU's Scotty McGee, whose electrifying 99-yard return for a touchdown was like an intravenous jolt of adrenaline to the Dukes, sparking JMU to a 35-32 victory.


Moore knew that Appalachian State hadn't allowed another kickoff return for a touchdown until Saturday.


While we watched four FCS teams, McNeese State, Eastern Washington, Youngstown State and Tennessee-Martin score wins over Football Bowl Subdivision squads, many of the 27 losses in those "money" games turned on the subject of special teams — none so dramatically as Appalachian State's loss.


A lot is made of the 22-scholarship difference between FBS and FCS schools and probably no area emphasizes this distinction more than special teams.


"East Carolina had about eight guys that that was all they did," said Moore.


This writer covered four FCS vs FBS matchups in three days last weekend and three of those games were tilted by the kicking game.


In the case of Towson, which dropped a 41-21 decision at Kent State last Thursday night, not only were the Tigers down by 22 scholarships to start against the Golden Flashes, they were also traveling with just 50 players — something many conferences dictate to control spending.


Moore can't control the fact he has 22 less bodies when playing a team like East Carolina, so he went back to working on what he could control — execution.


So, the Mountaineers repeated kickoff, after kickoff, after kickoff and punt, after punt, after punt on Tuesday, often with loud, in-your-face correction from the ASU coaching staff when mistakes were made.


This scene was undoubtably repeated at practices around FCS this week.


"It was a good time to emphasize it," Moore said.


Most fans would probably agree.